There are many issues involving race and sports worth getting
excited about. The lack of minority ownership of professional
sports franchises is one of them. The snaillike advancement of
persons of color into the managerial and coaching ranks of these
teams is another. But for all the hype surrounding Latrell
Sprewell, the incident between him and his coach most assuredly
does not belong in this group.
Not every confrontation between a black man and a white man
constitutes a civil rights issue. To suggest that the Sprewell
case does diminishes the real civil rights issues that the U.S.
has faced in the past and faces still. Not every incident like
this sheds light on the state of race relations in American
life. To suggest that this case does diverts us from the
challenges we must confront across the racial divide.
Sometimes things are no bigger than they seem, sometimes there
is not more than meets the eye, and sometimes even an event like
this one provides us with no insight into relations between
white and black Americans generally. Sometimes things get out of
hand, self-control is tossed out the window, and someone crosses
the line of acceptable behavior and resorts to violence. And
According to eyewitness accounts, at a practice on Dec. 1
Sprewell placed his hands around the neck of his coach, P.J.
Carlesimo, began choking him and shouting, "I'm going to kill
you." You don't need to be a rocket scientist or even an expert
in jurisprudence to know that there is something fundamentally
wrong with such behavior and that it demands punishment.
Some in the media, including this magazine, have tried their
level best to spin the race angle on this story. Black player.
White coach. Violence. Celebrity. Ratings. The punditocracy is
in a lather. No less a personage than Sam Donaldson stated on
ABC's This Week--without a shred of evidence--that "Jesse
Jackson may go so far as to begin picketing or boycotting the
NBA." Let me be very clear: I won't be leading any pickets or
rallies or marches in reaction to the Sprewell case. I will pray
for Latrell, however. I will pray that he finds the inner peace
that is missing from his life, that he can rein in the anger and
resentment that seem to have gained the upper hand in his soul.
And I will pray that fans of the NBA will find it in their
hearts to forgive him, as Jesus calls on us to forgive our
brother seventy times seven. I will pray that there will be
forgiveness, reconciliation and that some day Latrell will be
able to rejoin the NBA with a clear conscience and a full heart.
Because of the length of time, a year, that the NBA has required
Sprewell to sit out, it has been suggested that commissioner
David Stern is trying to send a message or draw a line. A
message does need to be sent, and a line does need to be drawn.
But the challenge for our society is to begin drawing that line
a long time before players reach the NBA. If the Sprewell
episode has a larger implication, it is found in a
sports-entertainment industry that tells athletes at a very
young age that they may play by a different set of rules than
their fellow students, that coddles them and spoils them and
that showers them with rewards out of all proportion to their
contributions to society.
All the fuss about Sprewell will have accomplished something if,
as a result, we begin asking questions about the role of sports
in our society. The road to an incident like this begins the
first time an F is turned into a C for a star athlete, when
local prosecutors pass on a case that would have landed a
nonathlete in jail, when high school and college coaches are not
expected to have a broad role in the academic life of the
schools that hire them, when communities choose to build
spanking new stadiums rather than rebuild crumbling elementary
It's easy to condemn Latrell Sprewell. It's easy to try to
inject race into the case. What is more difficult and more
worthy is for all of us, regardless of race, to ponder our own
culpability in the creation of a sports-entertainment industry
of big stars and big money that may be teaching our children all
the wrong lessons.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson, founder and president of Rainbow
PUSH Coalition, played quarterback at North Carolina A&T.